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Editorial: Don't build more jail cells in Suffolk

An MS-13 gang member in the Suffolk County

An MS-13 gang member in the Suffolk County jail. Credit: Michael E. Ach, 2007

With each additional person jailed in Suffolk County and each cell constructed to comply with state mandates, the taxpayer is further imprisoned by the costs of incarceration. Much of this money doesn't need to be spent, and some of these dollars should be dedicated to outlays more effective than walls and bars.

In April, the county opened a $180-million, 420-bed addition to the Yaphank jail that the state pressed it to build for more than a decade because of overcrowding. This was a significant increase in capacity beyond the existing 414 beds at Yaphank and 764 beds (and 400 "variance beds" for extra inmates) in Riverhead.

But even before the first prisoner was behind bars at the new jail, the state demanded another expansion at Yaphank likely to cost at least $100 million.

Before the county spends more tax money that it doesn't have, let's look at why so many people are in Suffolk's jails.

Plenty stay there too long, and once released, are likely to return. It costs Suffolk County $250 a day to keep someone in a cell. That's money well spent if it keeps a violent criminal off the streets, but it's a high price to keep accused pot smokers or lousy drivers out of work and away from their families.

About 75 percent of the 1,625 people incarcerated in Yaphank or Riverhead are awaiting trial. In many cases, the relationship between what the inmates are accused of and what the county will pay to host them boggles the mind.

One defendant, jailed on April 29 for resisting arrest, has a court date on May 28. There is no other charge against him, suggesting the suspected offense that spurred the stop didn't pan out. This inmate sits in jail for lack of the $25 to make bail. It will cost the county at least $8,000 to hold this person.

As of last week, there were 88 people awaiting trial in Suffolk jails with bails lower than $2,000, and hundreds more with bail under $5,000.

Bail is meant to guarantee that criminals show up to court, but few defendants would decide whether to appear based on a returnable $25 bail, or even a $250 or $500 bail. The Vera Institute of Justice, an organization that works with governments to improve the justice system, says less than 1 percent of defendants fail to appear in court when released on their own recognizance.

Anyone in jail awaiting trial on a tiny bail is in jail for being poor, not for presenting a flight risk.

Then there are the 25 percent serving time in Suffolk for convictions in which the sentence was one year or less. Most are young men in trouble for drug charges or crimes stemming from addiction. Is jail the place for them? Most experts think not; but then, what is the right place, and program?

Suffolk County has a number of "alternative to incarceration" programs, including probation, electronic surveillance, drug and mental health treatment, and diversion to specialty courts that shy away from prison time. They are funded with local, state, federal and private money. But there is little up-to-date, concrete data on which of these programs works in Suffolk County, and at what cost. Finding out which are the most effective use of dollars and expanding those, while shuttering the others, is key to keeping jail populations and costs down.

Suffolk County needs to fund a comprehensive study of which alternatives work, conducted by a party independent of the programs themselves, then respond to it swiftly. Judges need to stop setting bails that act as punishment for poverty rather than inducement to appear in court. And the state needs to give the county time to put all this in motion before it requires the construction of another jail.

Suffolk County faces a $250-million deficit. Another jail expansion isn't affordable. There are better ways to spend, particularly if the goal is not just punishing crime, but preventing it.